After recovering from cataclysmic but largely unfulfilled projections of how their populations would be decimated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, African countries have gradually relaxed restrictions and continue to re-evaluate the public health risks. Following months of closure, universities and institutions of higher learning across sub-Saharan Africa re-opened. To adapt to learning in the new normal, many universities used a mix of hybrid, online and sometimes knee-jerk reactions that ultimately revealed how uneven the higher education landscape is within, and across African countries. “Covid-19 is not a great equalizer as some have suggested, but a phenomenon that exacerbates inequality,” argued Dr. Siphokazi Magadla, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.“Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, African countries were in understandable panic and almost in unanimity, resorted to shutdowns and curfews, promptly sending university students home.”
Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus as a pandemic, African countries were in understandable panic and almost in unanimity, resorted to shutdowns and curfews, promptly sending university students home. According to Dr. Njoki Wamai, an assistant professor at the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta immediately shut down all schools and colleges when the country reported its first Covid-19 case on March 13. Sierra Leone, a country that had the experience of the Ebola pandemic to draw from, immediately shut down universities and sent students home. “We were actually in the middle of examinations, which had to be abandoned midway,” recalled Dr. Ibrahim Bangura, a lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. Furthermore, after the first case was announced at the end of March, universities and other institutions of higher learning in Sierra Leone were turned into isolation and quarantine centers for Covid-19 patients.
Despite these sudden closures, across sub-Saharan Africa, universities and institutions of higher learning were first in line among educational institutions to re-open after being shut for close to eight months. In South Africa, whose leader President Cyril Ramaphosa was hailed for taking decisive action against the pandemic, a phased opening of universities began in June. “There was a ministry of higher education campaign that rallied parents and students to ‘save the academic year and save lives’,” recalled Dr. Ruth Murambadoro, a senior lecturer of political science at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. In Kenya, universities opened doors to final year students in October, while Ugandan universities requested medical students to return to campus in August.
Transitioning to online learning in African universities
Across the continent, the dramatization of index cases in African countries triggered a wave of institutional closures. In Zimbabwe, the media spectacle surrounding the death of the first Covid-19 patient on March 23 sparked rumors of widespread infections in campuses. “I was just scared to continue with my lectures,” said Dr. Rose Jaji, a senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of Zimbabwe. A week later, a lockdown was announced, universities and all schools in the southern African country were ordered closed, and students asked to leave. “Similarly, in Ghana our universities were shut down along with all schools following a presidential directive on March 15, when cases rose from the initial two on March 12, to six,” said Prof. Audrey Gadzekpo, professor and dean of the School of Communication Studies at the University of Ghana. In Nigeria, the government announced the closure of all federal universities with only a notice of one or two days after the first case was announced in early March. An ongoing lecturers’ strike in Nigerian federal universities was a reminder that Covid-19 was simply an extra layer to pre-existing crises, allowing the state to ignore the labor dispute affecting public universities, even as private universities shifted to online learning. As sub-Saharan African universities closed down, economic and social realities prompted a focus on online learning. The shift to technology and online teaching brought to the surface inequalities within and across universities in several countries. In Kenya and Nigeria, inequality became apparent in how private and public universities rebounded from the crises, and how smaller, recently established universities outdid more established universities in appropriating technology and moving learning online.“At Kenya’s Kisii University, a previously infrequently used online learning system was immediately used to first engage graduate students. It was later rolled out for teaching and evaluation with undergraduate students.”
For most private universities and comparatively smaller public universities, the digital infrastructure was already available. “I think within two weeks, or even earlier, we had switched to online learning,” said Dr. Wamai. “The computer department helped the entire university switch full time to Blackboard, a platform that was already in use before the pandemic.” Blackboard, a widely used online learning platform in North America, was able to help USIU, a private university in Kenya with US origins, continue lectures and administer examinations online. “Initially the challenge concerned the integrity of the examinations, but we were able to surmount that by asking students to install a feature that allowed us to watch as they took the examinations,” added Dr. Wamai. “The university of Witwatersrand had an already existing online platform called Wits-e, so it was not difficult to make the shift online,” said Dr. Murambadoro. At Kenya’s Kisii University, a previously infrequently used online learning system was immediately used to first engage graduate students. It was later rolled out for teaching and evaluation with undergraduate students. “During examinations, students were asked to download ‘lock-down browser apps’ which allowed us to invigilate examinations virtually. We also did a virtual graduation at the end of the year,” said Dr. Pamela Mainye, the chair of the communications and journalism department at Kisii University.
The situation was more complex at Kenya’s oldest university, the University of Nairobi. The hashtag #UoNhearus captured the backlash and pushback from economically disadvantaged students against the university’s decision to move classes online when the vast majority of students could barely afford it. In several countries, universities that were not using online platforms before the pandemic were caught flatfooted and the subsequent scramble to train students and lecturers provided little success.“In Ghana, the University of Ghana partnered with telecommunication companies to provide all students with 5 GB of data a month and the companies waived all financial costs for university sites.”
At Kenya’s second oldest university, Moi University, an online teaching platform called musomi (Swahili for scholar) was barely used, with months spent on preparing trainings, and bureaucratic deliberations in the university senate. However, public and private universities in Kenya had the option of using a government subsidized initiative, through the Kenya Education Network Trust (KENET), which offered a free web conferencing platform to member institutions. “At Makerere University, the Institute of Open Distance and E-learning spearheaded initiatives to train faculty on online classes, but except for graduate students’ oral defenses on Zoom, not much teaching or examinations happened,” said Dr. Pamela Khanakwa, a historian at Uganda’s Makerere University. “Only private universities are moving to e-learning in Nigeria, (public) universities are still not used to online classes, and neither do they have the platforms to teach online. We are just using WhatsApp,” said Olugbenga Falase, a sociologist at Lead University, in Ibadan. However, Dr. Nathaniel Umukoro, a lecturer at Delta State University, revealed that a few state-owned universities like Edo University in southern Nigeria used an online platform called Canvas, to conduct online teaching. In Ghana, the University of Ghana partnered with telecommunication companies to provide all students with 5 GB of data a month and the companies waived all financial costs for university sites. “We moved all teaching and meetings online and used the online platforms Sakai and Zoom to engage with students. We are now in examinations week and students have been given take-home exams,” said Prof. Gadzekpo, “However, if any students want to come to campus perhaps because they cannot access online facilities in their towns, they are being allowed. Most students prefer to remain online. Online teaching has been largely smooth.”
Covid-19 unveils varied inequalities
In other universities in Africa, the shift to online learning was less formalized. “The vice chancellor simply asked us to continue teaching online, without any proper, formal clear policy or infrastructure,” recalled Dr. Bangura, “It was largely left to us to innovate, there was simply no support from the state or university in supporting online teaching.” Universities in Sierra Leone were not alone in shifting the financial and logistical burden of online learning to lecturers and students. “Students in Zimbabwe felt the relocation to e-learning was unfair, prompting them to sue the state arguing that online learning was discriminatory,” said Dr. Jaji about those who could not afford internet bundles. “I simply bore all the costs, and I decided to use WhatsApp, as my students found it cheaper to use their mobile phones than the university’s e-learning platform.” For Dr. Bangura, who estimated that over 95 percent of university students in Sierra Leone do not own laptops, and where many lecturers lack the technical know-how of using online platforms, the challenge of access to electricity meant that there was never a serious discussion on how learning would take place during the pandemic. “It was largely left to us, to innovate and experiment with the little technology available.” WhatsApp was widely used to supplement online teaching, bridging the gap between formal online learning tools supported by universities and informal digital tools, since most university students in Africa convene around WhatsApp groups.“Online learning is not only a financial burden to both academics and students but is a physically taxing exercise for lecturers in Africa.”
At South Africa’s Rhodes University, the university’s laptop loan program helped students navigate the technological challenges. “The university buys data for students and staff, and the ministry of higher education has been negotiating to make university websites, and related learning spaces, zero rated,” said Dr. Siphokazi, “for those unable to access online resources, the university posted course packs using courier and postal services.” Universities in Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zimbabwe successfully managed to get telecommunication companies to lower and subsidize internet costs to facilitate online learning. Still, online learning is not only a financial burden to both academics and students but is a physically taxing exercise for lecturers in Africa. “I would rather have in-person classes. Online teaching is exhausting, tough to schedule, and involves so much late-night planning, made worse with high incidences of absenteeism from students,” said Dr. Murambadoro. “The stress levels are enormous. My children are home-schooling online. My home is my office, and my lecture room, and my kids’ classroom all at once. It is chaotic,” reported Dr. Mainye, a mother of two middle-schoolers. According to Dr. Siphokazi, online learning has seen a spike in mental illness and depression associated with being confined to rooms and homes. “Women academics with small children have been most affected with indications that their research output has essentially plummeted,” she said. For students with disabilities, a few universities offered support with the shift to online learning, but the general trend saw many of them slipping through the cracks. “I had to adjust and make individualized considerations for my two visually handicapped students,” said Dr. Jaji. “They were clearly left out with the shift to online learning.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and the role of digital infrastructures in universities will have far reaching ramifications for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa. Universities will no longer pay lip service to online learning and investments in digital infrastructures. “We are also going to see a change in how higher education placement is articulated,” argued Dr. Wamai, “In the past, Kenyan universities used to peg admissions to bed space, and later moving to class space. With online learning, the focus on physical spaces will become irrelevant.” Importantly, with telecommunication companies reaping some of the largest profits even during the pandemic, there will be clamor for free or highly subsidized data to learning institutions in Africa. However, although online learning avails prospects for democratizing higher education, there is a risk that the existing online learning contexts will aggravate class and gender inequalities in African universities, with the fault lines already emerging between private and public universities.
This article draws from a webinar held with over 40 APN and NextGen fellows, in June 2020. Participants were drawn from over 20 African Countries.